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Tea Party Targets Stupak; Washington's Glass Ceiling; Could Karzai Join the Taliban?

Aired April 8, 2010 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, two signatures pave the way for thousands -- thousands of nuclear weapons to be dismantled. The United States and Russia reach a landmark agreement on reducing their nuclear stockpiles while trying to figure out how to keep Iran from amassing its own.

Also, a capital in chaos -- throwing the future of a critical U.S. military base in serious doubt. Washington' keeping a nervous eye on the crisis unfolding right now in Kyrgyzstan.

And late breaking developments in the case of a diplomat who caused an airline bomb scare. CNN has now learned that he was on his way to visit a jailed Al Qaeda agent. Now his government is taking dramatic action.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's the most -- most substantial nuclear arms pact in decades. President Obama and the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, have agreed to cut their number of the nations' nuclear warheads by one third over the next seven years. They signed what's being called the new START Treaty in the Czech Republic, a former front line of the cold war.

The deal still has to be ratified by lawmakers in both Moscow and Washington.

But Mr. Obama says the signing sends a powerful signal around the world.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nuclear weapons are not simply an issue for the United States and Russia, they threaten the common security of all nations. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is a danger to people everywhere, from Moscow to New York, from the cities of Europe to South Asia. So next week, 47 nations will come together in Washington to discuss concrete steps that can be taken to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is traveling with the president in Prague.

He's joining us now.

This is a big -- a big deal given the stakes involved -- Ed.

But what are White House officials telling you?

How important is this?

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, in private, they're saying, look, this is a big deal because if you think about it, that picture we saw today of the U.S. and Russian leaders coming together we haven't seen in many years before. There have been very frosty relations in recent years, on and off again. And we have not seen a treaty like this signed in some time, number one.

Number two, if you think back to a year ago this week, the president was right here in Prague giving this speech -- his vision of a nuclear-free world. Within a few months, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. And there were critics -- there were skeptics around the world saying he doesn't deserve it, he hasn't accomplished anything on the foreign policy front. Now the White House is saying, look, he's got this one under his belt.

And, finally, while -- even with these reductions, both sides will still have significant numbers of nuclear warheads in their arsenals. The president made clear today he thinks this is just a first step. He thinks he's going to be coming back, maybe signing more treaties with Russia in the days ahead, to keep chipping away and getting that arsenal down, because top White House aides say they think this president has forged a pretty good partnership with his Russian counterpart -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And as much as they spoke about the US-Russian nuclear arrangements, they also want to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear bomb.

Listen to what the Russian president said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. DMITRY MEDVEDEV, RUSSIA (through translator): Of course, sanctions, by themselves, seldom obtain some specific results, although it's difficult to do without them in certain situations. But in any case, those sanctions should be smart and aim not only at non- proliferation, but also to resolve other issues, rather than to produce a humanitarian catastrophe for the Iranian people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How confident are officials at the White House, Ed, that the Russians will be on board for a new round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran?

HENRY: They're pretty confident and here's why. Today, around this signing, what we didn't see was behind closed doors. The two leaders were supposed to have two meetings, just by themselves and then an expanded meeting with all kinds of other officials on both sides. Both meetings total were going to last about an hour-and-a- half, we're told by White House aides. That's how they planned it.

In the end, that first meeting of just the two leaders lasted for about an hour-and-a-half itself, because they started, we're told by top aides, they started getting into real detail on how to craft these sanctions before the UN.

So for the first time, the White House really believes that the Russian president, with those public comments, but more importantly, what he was saying behind closed doors, that if these sanctions are targeted in the right way, in a way that he believes will not hurt the Iranian people and just targets the government, he could be on board for this. So they are getting reasonably confident that with a little bit more work, they're going to get Russia on board for tough sanctions against Iran. That would be a major development -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And we're going to have more on this. Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of the president's National Security Council, he's going to be joining us from Prague later.

Ed Henry, thanks very much.

There's fresh heartbreak in West Virginia right now, where efforts to find four missing miners are suffering a setback. Rescue crews were within 500 feet of an airtight emergency chamber where the miners could be waiting for help when they were forced to turn back.

CNN's Brian Todd has been covering this story for us on the ground in West Virginia.

What's the latest -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no getting around it. As you mentioned, a major setback for the rescue effort today. Just a short time ago, rescue teams were pulled out of the Upper Big Branch Mine because of dangerous and potentially explosive levels of methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas -- an especially excruciating development because they had gotten so close.

The rescuers had gotten into the same general area where they believe the four missing miners are located. You mentioned a moment ago, Wolf, they did get within 500 feet of one of those rescue chambers -- one of those large boxes that can fit 15 miners in there. They have enough oxygen in there for four days. That's for 15 people. For four or three people, they have much more oxygen. They can survive a lot longer.

How frustrated were the rescuers?

Well, listen to Chris Adkins, the chief operating officer of Massey Energy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS ADKINS, MASSEY ENERGY COMPANY COO: I'm very angry. You can imagine hauling equipment for a long distance, getting up there, getting exactly where you need to be and then having to double time it back out because you found yourself in harm's way. At the same time, they're -- they're running on adrenaline right now. They're very tired. And, you know, you -- you have to make decisions that are conscious decisions in the best interests of the rescue workers, because we -- we can't put them at risk, either.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: So the game plan right now is to go back in this evening. They think they can get the rescuers back in within the next couple of hours. But it all depends on how the drilling goes and how they can ventilate out these very dangerous gases -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do officials, Brian, know why the levels of these toxic gases, these very dangerous gases, seemed to creep up today?

TODD: Well, one of the officials, Chris Adkins, who you heard from just a moment ago, from Massey Energy, says that they believe it could be linked to a storm front that high school moved through here. It's raining very hard right now. And they believe that that -- the accompanying drop in barometric pressure could have had something to do with those gases kind of churning again and rising in -- in intensity.

It also could have been some activity by the rescuers themselves. There are a lot of potential causes of that. But right now, the -- the real effort here is to drill more holes, ventilate out these gases and get back in that mine.

BLITZER: And even, Brian, while the president is in Prague, he wants answers to a lot of these questions that have come up over these past few days.

TODD: He absolutely does, Wolf. The president wants to meet next week with the Labor secretary, Hilda Solis, and the head of the Mining Safety and Health Administration, Joe Main, to -- just to go over what can be done to prevent this, what the causes were. There's been a lot of outcry from officials here and other people who are connected to this industry saying more has got to be done to ensure the safety of these miners.

And it's gotten, clearly, now, up to the very top. President Obama wants those answers. He may get some next week.

BLITZER: Let us know, Brian, if there's any change whatsoever. We'll get right back to you in West Virginia.

Brian Todd, our man on the scene in West Virginia.

From the economic boom of the 1990s to the near collapse of Citigroup, the former Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, played a key role in both. Now he's in the hot seat and he's getting a grilling.

And ominous new developments in the case of three American hikers being detained in Iran. We have reaction just coming in from their families.

Plus, the 2012 race for the White House in the spotlight, as Republican stars are gathering in New Orleans.

Will one of them emerge as an early favorite?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Day two of the hearings by the special commission looking into the U.S. financial crisis, specifically, the subprime mortgage meltdown. And the former Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, was in the hot seat today, defending his role at Citigroup, which needed billions and billions of government bailout dollars to avoid collapse.

Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, has been watching what's going on -- tell us, Jessica, what happened today.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the former Treasury secretary made $14 million a year for his role at Citigroup. That's one of the companies that was most heavily invested in subprime mortgages. And today, he was asked over and over how he could have missed signs that crisis was coming.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Once the King Midus of Bill Clinton's "Golden economy." Now, former Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, is defending his tenure as a top adviser to Citigroup -- the company that helped fuel the subprime mortgage crisis and the nation's financial meltdown.

ROBERT RUBIN, FORMER CITIGROUP OFFICIAL: Almost all of us, including me, who were involved in the financial system missed the powerful combination of factors that led to this crisis and the serious possibility of a massive crisis.

YELLIN: Sharing the mea culpa, the company's former CEO.

CHARLES PRICE, FORMER CITIGROUP CEO: I'm sorry that our management team, starting with me, like so many others, could not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us.

YELLIN: Citigroup got the largest bank bailout -- $45 billion.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, FINANCIAL COMMISSION MEMBER: The question is not whether you could have foreseen the whole crisis, the question is, could you have foreseen the spark that lit the crisis?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wouldn't it also be true to say that you and the regulators should have been asking the right questions? PHIL ANGELIDES, FINANCIAL COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: It just seems to me that, at the end of the day, the two of you in charge of this organization did not seem to have a grip on what was happening.

YELLIN: But Rubin said making decisions about risky investments was not his job.

RUBIN: What a board needs to do -- and I believe Citigroup did do -- is to put strong people in the relevant positions. And then what you're depending on is it -- is both those people and a whole set of checks and balances.

YELLIN: The closest he came to an apology?

RUBIN: We all bear responsibility for not recognizing this and I deeply regret that.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, commissioners actually seemed frustrated that former Treasury Secretary Rubin never overtly apologized for Citi's troubles. He did, at one point, say that he waived his own bonus for two years of his tenure once the crisis hit -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's assess what's going on with our senior political analyst, David Gergen -- David, does Bob Rubin, from your perspective -- and you know him. You know him quite well. You worked with him in the Clinton administration.

Does he deserve all the blame that he's getting right now?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, I'm a big fan, so I'm biased. I -- I do believe he deserves some blame. I think he shares that blame with a number of others. He stepped up to it today and said I take, you know, responsibility for my part of it.

It's important to remember that he was not running Citi. He was a principal adviser, but he had no operational responsibilities. In fact, he worked very hard not to be involved in the operations of Citi.

So, Wolf, yes, I think he -- I think it was appropriate he was called up today, but I think we shouldn't overdo this.

And let me just make another -- a different point. I think we have a tendency in this city -- and you and I have seen this so many times -- that somebody can do a terrific job for a while and then they -- and there's something -- a chapter in their career that doesn't go so well. And we suddenly forget all the preceding chapters.

And it's important to remember and to remind people now that when he was the chief architect of the economic policies in the Clinton administration, three big things happened. We created 23 million jobs during those eight Clinton year -- more than in any other administration in history. People on the bottom rungs, for the first time, started moving up. For 30 years, they'd just been -- you know, they'd been stuck. And poverty went down by seven million people.

At the end of the day, after a long period of economic growth, then some higher taxes, by the way, they left behind surpluses. We were -- three years in a row, we started paying down the national debt. Had we remained on that course, the national debt -- the publicly held debt would have disappeared last year. It would have disappeared.

BLITZER: That's a good -- that's a big if...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: If we had remained on this. But, you know, some people are now going back to the Clinton administration and saying they also -- the president of the United States, Bill Clinton signed legislation into law easing so many of those regulations on banks and financial institutions that -- that sort of helped create this subprime bubble that burst, as we all know, a few years down the road.

GERGEN: I think, in retrospect, the -- the Clinton team also does bear some responsibility for that, Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. And President Clinton did put into effect deregulation. We were kept -- we were caught up in a, you know, a wave of there's a better way to run an economy.

I think -- I think we've now realized that...

BLITZER: There was strong bipartisan support for that, too.

GERGEN: Right. There was bipartisan support. But we took too many referees off the field.

BLITZER: Yes.

GERGEN: You know, we left it -- we left the game sort of, you know, the hurly-burly of a game, that it was no longer refereed and it got out of control. And I think that's why people are trying to get some referees back in there.

BLITZER: People forget that Bill Clinton was working with Phil Gramm closely on a lot of that.

GERGEN: Well, they -- he was. But, you know, when you do things like that, it's going to be like the -- the Obama people on health care. They're going to have to depend on their successors to ultimately manage it well once you put something in place. Let's say health care costs go spiraling out of control here in the next few years and the deficit gets worse. Well, that's a possibility. I hope it doesn't happen. But you've got to somehow look to your successors then also to manage well.

BLITZER: Yes. That's a good point, as -- as you always do.

GERGEN: Well, thank you.

BLITZER: Good points, David.

GERGEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

A disturbing case making national headlines -- a teenage girl allegedly bullied to the point of suicide. Now there are new pleas by some of her accused tormentors.

And new reports reveal what they be the most effective way to keep kids from smoking.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

A statement from the embassy of Qatar explaining what that diplomat was doing aboard that United flight from Washington to Denver -- Lisa, what are we learning?

SYLVESTER: We can walk you through this right now. That -- we actually got a statement. It's from the public relations company that was hired by the embassy -- the Qatar embassy.

And this is to answer some of the questions about that diplomat. He was flying from Washington, D.C. to Denver. And he was apparently on official business at the time. He was going to be visiting with some students who were from his country. But he was also scheduled to meet in prison with a Qatari national. Mr. Ali al-Marri, who is imprisoned in Florence, Colorado.

This is an individual who is currently serving an eight year, four months term in prison for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. He was in custody, actually, in DOD custody starting in 2003. He pled guilty into 2009. And since about mid-2009, he has been having these regular monthly consular visits. And what we are told is that these consular visits are actually guaranteed by the Vienna Convention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting stuff.

And we're going to have a lot more on this story coming up, including what this diplomat is going to be doing.

But tell us what other news is going on right now as well -- Lisa.

SYLVESTER: In other news, we have political upheaval that's forcing U.S. troops working at the air base in Kyrgyzstan into restriction at that facility. A military spokesman at Manas airfield says humanitarian missions and other trips from the base are temporarily suspended. The Central Asian nation's president is in hiding and an interim opposition government has formed in the wake of a bloody coup. A wave of protests left dozens of people dead. And three teenagers charged with bullying another girl so badly she committed suicide have pleaded not guilty. The lawyers for the three girls, all 16, entered the pleas at their arraignment in juvenile court in Hadley, Massachusetts today. The girls were not in court. Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January after what prosecutors called an unrelenting bullying campaign against her. Three other teenagers pleaded not guilty in superior court.

And health officials say boosting prices on cigarettes is one of the more effective ways to discourage smoking, especially among teenagers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today released two reports on tax hikes and the impact of prices on smoking. Still, officials are worried that tobacco companies are using discounts to keep prices down. Fourteen states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. government hiked taxes last year, anywhere from a dime to a dollar per pack.

And daytime superstar, Oprah Winfrey, will move to nighttime. Her new cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, today announced plans for the hour long show, "Oprah's Next Chapter." Winfrey will trade her familiar talk show format for conversations and travel around the world. "OWM" is a joint venture between Winfrey Harpo, Incorporated and Discovery Communications. They will begin on January 1st.

I know that a lot of people will be looking to that. Oprah certainly has her fans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Oh, she'll have fans in daytime and in prime time, I have no doubt about that.

Lisa, thanks very much.

The Tea Party movement wants one key lawmaker to pay a huge political price for his health care vote.

We're going to tell you who that is and why.

And a transcript shows a surprising conversation in the cockpit of a commercial airliner that veered off the runway during an attempted takeoff. Wait until you hear what the pilots were talking about.

And scientists uncover remains of a previously unknown species bearing some traits of both humans and apes.

Could it open a new chapter in human evolution?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, a fresh twist today in the case of an Arab diplomat who touched off an in-flight bomb scare. Word is he was on his way to visit a convicted terrorist in prison. More details just coming in. And another piece of shifting U.S. nuclear strategy falling into place -- the U.S. and Russia sign a pact for major cuts in their nuclear arsenals.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Tea Party Express is making its way to Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak's district in Michigan. Stupak is the anti-abortion holdout who cut a deal that ultimately gave the Democratic leadership the votes it needed to push through health care reform.

Now some members of the Tea Party are making it their goal to see him defeated in November.

Let's go to the scene right now.

Our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is out there working the story for us -- Dana, I want our viewers first to listen to this ad that the Tea Party is running against Stupak.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM TEA PARTY EXPRESS AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congressman Bart Stupak, you've betrayed our Constitution. You sold us out on the health care vote. And now it's time for you to pay the political price.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right -- Dana, what are you hearing in his district up there in Michigan?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, unlike other Democrats that the Tea Party is targeting, Bart Stupak has never been vulnerable since he's been in Congress for 18 years. He has won this district by 65, 69 percent -- huge majorities.

And the thing about this district, it's -- it is gigantic, Wolf. I think we have a map just to show you. This 1st District of Michigan is the second largest Congressional District east of the Mississippi. It is very difficult for a member of Congress or anybody to get to know their constituents.

But in making my way around some of it -- just a small part of it today, it is clear in talking to members -- to constituents, they actually have gotten to know Bart Stupak. And he has built up a reservoir of goodwill here.

Still, the people who live here tend to be conservative socially, tend to be skeptical of government. And that is ripe for the Tea Party and their message.

And Bart Stupak's health care vote -- and specifically the notoriety around it, it has been a mixed bag for him.

Listen to some of his constituents that we talked to today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELLEN SANTINI: But I am worried about the health program that they're putting out and what they're going to do to us older people, because I have two illnesses. And I've been able to pay them and handle it. And I'm hoping they're not doing anything with our Medicare.

DAN COLLINS: Well, he had to make a decision and probably made a decision for the people that need health care in this country.

BASH: So you think the health care bill was the right thing to do, to vote for it?

COLLINS: Sure. I mean there's going to be parts of it that people aren't going to like. We've got to -- once we work through it, I think it will all work out in the end.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As you know -- and all of our viewers by now know, Dana -- he's very anti-abortion. But the deal he worked out with the White House, the last minute deal on abortion, paved the way for the House to pass health care reform.

How is all of it playing, based on what you can tell, that decision of his, at the last minute, really, to work this -- this arrangement out with the White House?

BASH: It's tough for Bart Stupak here. Look, he is, as you said, he considers himself staunchly anti-abortion. And that very much represents this district well, because it is very conservative, very Catholic and a lot of people here are strongly anti-abortion.

However, Wolf, a group that had endorsed him for the 18 years he was here, Michigan Right to Life, guess what? They rescinded that endorsement because they believe that he betrayed them. So, that is something that is potentially hurt him here. And another anti- abortion group, Susan B. Anthony, that group is running a radio ad against the congressman.

Listen to what's running here in this district.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Stupak promised us he would protect the unborn. That he would stand firm and lead the coalition to keep abortion funding out of the health care bill. But Bart Stupak betrayed us.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BASH: Now, you've got that from the right and -- guess what? Bart Stupak also has a Democratic primary challenger, somebody who is for abortion rights, not very well-known at all. So, a lot of people don't think she's going to have much of a challenge. But it shows how he's being squeezed.

And, you know, I talked to some people who are close to him, and they are a little bit worried that this is such an unusual climate and so unknown, what could happen, that they are worried about that from the left as much as they are from the right, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is it a foregone conclusion that he's absolutely running for re-election?

BASH: It's not. It's not. You know, Bart Stupak doesn't have to formally say that he is running until May 11th. And he has not decided.

And, Wolf, that's making senior Democrats in Washington very nervous. I know from Democratic sources that the House speaker has called him, the House majority leader has called him, asking him to please, please, make sure he runs again. But he hasn't made up his mind. And that's what his office is saying.

It's important to note that he has actually not had any public events. We have not seen him here. He's not been out at all in public since he came home from Washington for the spring recess.

And, you know, we are told from people close to him that he certainly probably intends to run, but he's also exhausted and the fact that he has, again, as we've been reporting, some pretty tough phone calls to him and his family, and that's taken a toll on him.

BLITZER: Dana is in his district in Michigan were us. Good report, Dana. Thank you.

An in-depth look now at the Tea Party Express. CNN political producer Shannon Travis joins us right now from New Orleans.

Shannon, you've been covering this Tea Party movement now for several weeks. You wrote a really great piece on CNN.com. Tell our viewers what you're seeing that they are, perhaps, not necessarily seeing on television.

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Wolf, as you know, I actually went to a lot of the rallies that Dana is covering right now in five cities, over two states -- Colorado, Denver. And what actually is telegraphed on TV oftentimes isn't the whole story of what's out there.

So, I set out to see, OK, we oftentimes hear a lot of the coverage that the crowds are largely male and largely white, that there's a lot of anger and Democratic resentment, and that some other stereotypes from the -- that the fringe elements are just run amok. Some of that actually exists. I mean, you do see some of the signs that are racist, that are offensive to African-Americans. You do see some clearly anti-Obama signs.

But not all of the people are actually even Republicans or conservatives. I actually published another piece where some of them were Democrats. You do see some families there as well. You actually see a lot of nice people.

So, it wasn't about necessarily -- the piece I wrote wasn't about confirming or denying what's actually out there. It was just telling the full story of what actually happens at Tea Party rallies, because so many people actually see them on TV and haven't actually been to them.

BLITZER: Well, did you feel, as an African-American, Shannon, that you stood out there? That there weren't a whole lot of African- Americans in the crowds as you watched this Tea Party Express move along?

TRAVIS: Well, the interesting thing is there were not a lot of African-Americans in the crowd. But the ones that were there were really proud to be there. There's even one guy who gets up on stage often at a lot of these rallies and proudly proclaims that he's not an African-American, but that he's simply an American. That just ignites the crowd.

So, again, like you said, there aren't that many African- Americans that are at these rallies oftentimes, but the ones that are there are proud to be there.

BLITZER: Shannon Travis is one of our political producers. His story that he wrote, a reporter's notebook, what really happens at Tea Party rallies is at CNN.com.

Shannon, thanks very much.

They set up an adventure -- they set out to go on an adventure and ended up in custody in Iran. Now, the Iranian government has leveled charges against three American hikers that their families call, in a word, "ridiculous."

And as discord simmers within the Republican Party, leaders prepare for a major weekend conference in New Orleans. Will a new GOP star rise to the surface?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll go back to Lisa. She's monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What else is going on, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, again, Wolf.

Well, the families of the three Americans jailed in Iran are calling new reports that the hikers are spies ridiculous. Iran's press TV is reporting that the Iranian intelligence minister says he has credible evidence that the three have ties to American intelligence. He says the information will be revealed soon.

Now, the families in a statement say, "Allegations that they are spies are ridiculous. Our loved ones' continued detention and the psychological stress they are made to endure are unjustified, and we again appeal to Iran to allow them to return home."

A new cockpit voice recorder transcript reveals surprising conversations between two pilots in the moments leading up to an aborted takeoff from Charleston, West Virginia. According to the document, the pilots were discussing convertible cars right before the U.S. Airways express flight veered off the runway in January. The FAA prohibits any talking during landings or takeoffs not related to the aircraft. No one was injured in the incident.

And scientists have uncovered a previously unknown species which they say opens a new chapter in human evolution. These two skeletons which are almost 2 million years old bear straits from both the ape and human lineages. They are found in the South African pit which used to be a cave. That findings are detailed in tomorrow's issue of the "Journal of Science."

That is going to be utterly fascinating. It's interesting when you see the side-by-sides, too.

BLITZER: Yes. People are going to love reading this kind of stuff.

SYLVESTER: Yes.

BLITZER: I love to do it. I think a lot of other people do as well.

I know you do, Lisa. Thank you.

SYLVESTER: I do. I do. I'm really excited about it. I'm going to be reading that article tomorrow.

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is a scientific nerd. We know.

SYLVESTER: Yes.

BLITZER: All right. Good.

Republicans are getting ready to head south for a big conference this weekend. But as tensions brew within the party, is anyone picking up the reins? Stand by.

President Obama signs a major nuclear reduction arms agreement with Russia. Will he get the votes in the Senate to ratify it? I'll ask the chief of staff of his National Security Council. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Would it be a good idea for President Obama to come up with a peace plan for the Israelis and Palestinians and then try to force them into accepting it?

Let's discuss that and more in our "Strategy Session." Joining us now: the former Democratic congressman, Robert Wexler. He's now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace; and CNN political contributor and Republican strategist, Mary Matalin. There's been a lot of reports, Robert Wexler and Mary, as you both know, over the past few days that the administration is thinking of trying to impose a settlement on the Israelis and the Palestinians. I asked Denis McDonough, who is the chief of staff at the NSC, if those reports are accurate.

Listen to what he told me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DENNIS MCDONOUGH, NSC CHIEF OF STAFF: I've seen a lot of reports that seem to be a little ahead of the facts as I know them, and in some instances, a lot a head of the facts as I know them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Would it be a good idea, Robert Wexler -- you're a former congressman -- for the president to come up with a blueprint?

ROBERT WEXLER, PRESIDENT, S. DANIEL ABRAHAM CENTER FOR MIDDLE EAST PEACE: First of all, Denis McDonough is a close and trusted adviser of the president. So, I would take his word.

Most importantly, the administration is not going to seek to impose any plan. What the administration seeks is to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to the negotiation table, whether they be direct negotiations or what they call proximity talks -- for one purpose, Wolf, and that is to end, once and for all, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

BLITZER: So, are you hearing, Robert Wexler, there will not be a U.S. plan that will be presented to the Israelis and the Palestinians?

WEXLER: I think the administration wants the parties to negotiate. And then, when they negotiate at a point where there may be differences, at that stage, the administration would consider how to bridge those differences. That would be the ideal plan.

BLITZER: How does that sound to you, Mary?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it doesn't sound like David Ignatius column today which is driving this news and your question to McDonough. He's flat out saying -- he's very close to the administration, with respect to Congressman Wexler -- that there would be conditions imposed and that there would be linkage to Iran, which is where the whole thing falls apart.

There's no linkage to Iran. There's no leverage, because everything that the president had to say to Iran, which threatens everybody's security and most -- and with the greatest proximity, Israeli security, there's been nothing. There's been no sanctions, crippling or otherwise.

So, he -- what -- I don't think he could impose one. That's not the history. The history of the region is that Israel is more likely to take greater risks when they feel secure in their relationship with us, which this president's done nothing but diminish.

BLITZER: You were a major supporter of the president's in the campaign, as we all remember, Congressman.

WEXLER: Yes.

BLITZER: And you're a very strong supporter of Israel. Were you comfortable with the way the president treated the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was over at the White House a couple weeks ago?

WEXLER: This administration has an excellent record with respect to Israel, particularly with respect to Israeli security. The largest joint Israeli/American military exercise was conducted under Barack Obama's watch. When the Turks --

BLITZER: Having said all that. Were you comfortable with the fact he was sort of brought in the side door, no photo-op, no joint news conference, no statement, treated like that? Did that make you feel comfortable?

WEXLER: I don't think that's a fair characterization, Wolf. In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu spent 90 minutes with President Obama, which I was told at the security council today was actually the longest meeting that any foreign -- any head of state or prime minister has had with the president. Prime Minister Netanyahu was treated with great respect. And most importantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu understands that the security of the state of Israel is paramount to this president.

BLITZER: All right. What do you think, Mary?

MATALIN: I think Congressman Wexler has not lost his very good capacity to spin. If that -- if Bibi wasn't dissed, I don't know what diss is. That's a lot of spin, Congressman, and you know it.

WEXLER: Well, with all due respect, Mary, Prime Minister Netanyahu received 90 minutes alone with the president, alone, on the day in which President Obama signed his health care bill, the most important historic piece of legislation that this administration or any has passed in decades. Ninety minutes with the president of the United States alone on that day?

BLITZER: All right. Mary?

WEXLER: That is not in any way disrespectful, just the opposite.

MATALIN: Congressman, you know how this town works -- the town works. Wolf, so do you. The White House put out and the State Department put out that they were dissing him. They meant to diss him. That treatment, we would not treat some of our rogue enemy states the way that Bibi Netanyahu was treated.

And he himself was quoted all over the place saying he doesn't -- it was unfathomable to him. And the reason he got as much time is because he called back and requested it. BLITZER: All right. Hold on.

MATALIN: So, that's not how you treat your good friends. And that's not what increases Israel's security and our relationship.

BLITZER: Clearly, you're going to both disagree on that.

But, Mary, you're in New Orleans right now. That's where you and James live as we all know. The Southern Republican Leadership Conference is about to begin there.

Who is the leader of the Republican Party right now?

MATALIN: I think it's leading the party right now and what everybody's talking about and is excited about is sort of a return to constitutionalism, to federalism.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Yes, but is there a leader? Who is the leader? Is there one leader of the Republican Party?

MATALIN: I don't know that there needs to be one leader. There are very leading ideas. And we're unifying around ideas. We're probably about to have a lot of good voices who can espouse those ideas from Eric Cantor and his crew on the House side, to Mitch McConnell, his side, Michael Steele for what's all been on the news lately, is getting the job done at the national committee. But we've got -- everybody's very excited to be here.

BLITZER: And, you know, unfortunately, we're out of time. But I think, Robert, I'm going to talk to you and Mary the next time. I want to talk about Florida politics, specifically Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.

Will Charlie Crist, if he loses the Republican nomination from the Senate, run as an independent, pull a Joe Lieberman, if you will, in the state of Florida? But I'll tease that. We'll discuss that on another occasion guys.

Thanks very much for coming in.

WEXLER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Robert Wexler and Mary Matalin.

Is there a glass ceiling here in Washington? We're going to tell you about some new data on the percentage of women in top jobs.

Also, there's new information about the Middle Eastern diplomat who caused a scare aboard a flight from Washington to Denver. Was there really ever a threat? Did authorities overreact?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking at some of the most high-profile women in the federal government. But when it comes to the overall civilian federal workforce, new statistics show that men still hold more than their share of the top jobs.

Kate Bolduan has been digging into the numbers for us.

Kate, what do these numbers show us?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Organization of Federally Employed Women -- it's a women's advocacy group -- they just put out a report that they say shows that while the glass ceiling has been cracked, we have a long way to go.

Take a look here.

The civilian federal workforce is 2 million people -- about 2 million people strong. One of the largest employers in the country, and in senior-level positions, there are just over 7,700 people in those positions. These are the bosses. These are the managers.

And this is where the report focuses. Where this organization says the federal government is failing. And here is why. Take a look.

Women represent 44 percent of the overall civilian federal workforce. But, here's the "but," at senior-level positions in just last year's numbers, women only hold 30 percent of these senior-level positions, and that's the number, FEW, as the group is called, says needs to change.

We spoke today with Michelle Crockett. She's been a federal employee for 25 years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE CROCKETT, VICE PRES., FEDERALLY EMPLOYED WOMEN: There's definitely a problem with women getting promoted within the federal sector. There's a work/life balance.

Do we have flexibilities that -- in the workplace that afford us the opportunity to work outside of the home? Do we have flexibilities in the workplace that allow us (INAUDIBLE) access to training? Are there formal mentorship programs? Are there upward mobility programs?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, Kate, what does the federal government say about these numbers?

BOLDUAN: We've been checking. Well, the White House -- a White House official told me that the president, she assures President Obama is committed to making progress on this issue, pointing to the White House Council on Women and Girls that the president has established to help coordinate the federal response to challenges just like this.

But, like other big businesses, Wolf, when it comes to senior management turnover, that's slow. Senior management turnover doesn't happen as quickly as other positions, and we're told that, especially in today's economy, these numbers that we're talking about, these numbers -- they're not likely to change quickly in the near future.

BLITZER: It's better than it's used to be, but it's not where it should be.

BOLDUAN: Exactly. And they say we need to pay attention to that.

BLITZER: Kate, thanks very much -- Kate Bolduan reporting.

It's a country of political upheaval right now, protests turned deadly and an interim government has taken control. We'll have the latest on a key U.S. ally.

And two superpowers sign a pact to reduce nuclear arsenals dramatically. Is a world without nukes a possibility?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Obama administration says the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai's, scheduled visit to Washington next month is on.

But if Mr. Karzai's frustrations with the United States intensify, is there a chance he could decide to team up with the Taliban? That's a rumor that's been circulating.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. and Afghanistan are trying to fix a troubled relationship. Hamid Karzai's government now says it's committed to a partnership with the U.S. and the State Department rejected what it calls outrageous allegations against Afghanistan's president.

A member of the Afghan parliament tells CNN, he heard President Hamid Karzai say he might join with the Taliban if western officials keep criticizing and pressuring him to reform his government.

Farooq Marenai's public accusation shocked Karzai's office. His spokesman strongly denied Karzai even considered it.

WAHEED OMAR, KARZA'S SPOKESMAN: I think against those who put the lives of Afghan people in danger as priority number one. And in that context, that comment, whoever has come up with that context, does not make sense.

LAWRENCE: That was one accusation. But a former U.N. official is questioning Karzai's mental stability.

PETER GALBRAIGHT, FORMER U.N. OFFICIAL: Every diplomat who served in Kabul has had doubts about Karzai's mental state. This is -- people don't talk about it openly, but it's there.

LAWRENCE: Peter Galbraith maintains the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy depends on a credible, local partner.

GALBRAITH: And a man who is in office by virtue of fraud and who is frankly erratic as Hamid Karzai, and this is -- makes it difficult to accomplish your mission.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without a doubt, we need the strength of the mullahs, the strength of the outers, and the strength of the people to secure Now Zad Valley.

LAWRENCE: As the international politics play out, small teams of soldiers and marines are trying to build confidence in local Afghan government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Time for being scared has to be over. There's only one -- one bad guy for every 100 good.

LAWRENCE: The commanders admit, weeding out corruption is essential to their jobs.

CAPT. JEREMY WILKINSON, U.S. MARINE CORPS: If your local government is not working, and they don't have some sort of -- or semblance of orderly or trust, you're going to be fighting an uphill battle.

LAWRENCE (on camera): This tension between the two countries started to escalate fairly recently, when President Karzai publicly criticized western leaders for trying to interfere with and control the government here in Afghanistan. Ironically, it was just two years ago when Karzai said, quote, "If I am to be called a puppet because we are grateful to America, then let that be my nickname."

A lot's changed in two years.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, Kabul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.